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Matthew 5:27–28: Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

“You heard it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman in order to covet her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

I'm not sure how this concept of "adultery in one's heart" is usually interpreted. I can see two possible interpretations:

  1. Lusting or coveting after a women is wrong, no matter the context. The verses right after the ones I quoted are the very ones about casting off your eye if it causes you to stumble, which makes the point very clear (However this raises an interesting point with regards to sexual repression.)

  2. Sexual desire is human nature and is only forbidden if a man intends to have inappropriate sexual relations with the woman. Jesus could not possibly tell men to ignore their sexual 'hunger' which is as natural as hunger for food.

I think a major point in finding the correct interpretation is to consider the historical context. Were most of Jesus' disciples married, or was it custom back them for men to marry as soon as they are of a sexually ripe age? Can someone help me find a sound interpretation?

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migrated from Jun 21 '14 at 15:58

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Since adultery is specifically used, the context must refer to either the man, the woman or both being married. Lust referring an unlawful desire, it is unlawful for a married man to desire another woman or an unmarried man to desire a married woman. Such looking in order to cherish an unlawful desire is committing adultery in the heart. –  Liam Jul 24 '14 at 6:11

5 Answers 5

I would say 1. And explain it with the following:

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Matthew 5:6

Jesus is setting standards that would be impossible to meet without the Holy Spirit. But he is promising that those who strongly desire righteousness will be filled with righteousness.

Paul describes the process in Romans 7-8. From which I will quote excerpts:

22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:22-25

11 But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. 12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. 13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. Romans 8:11-14

Those have the spirit of God in them, still war against sin and sometimes sin, but through the Holy Spirit overcome this.

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The verse you have given is in the area called the sermon on the mount. In this whole area, Jesus is turning legalism on its head. He's telling them that not only are the sins that they have committed counted against them, but the sins "of the heart" themselves. This is just one of these sins. I won't get into details because I don't believe the question demands it. While, yes, overall the population got married much younger then, it's not what Jesus is addressing. It comes down to LOVE period. Can we all agree, this was the ministry of Christ? We are to accept the love of God given to us in the form of Jesus Christ, which gives us the forgiveness of our sins. This in turn, should build love in us for God for such a great sacrifice. Then, knowing this same sacrifice of love is for all, we should love the ones our Father loves. Now, just a little in the way of background, to have sexual relations with someone who was not your wife was shameful to her and her family. If you had love for someone, why would you bring them shame? You wouldn't, that's the point.

Even as we look for wives, we search one to love, not to lust after. Lust fades, love prevails. So Jesus was telling us to at all times make the choices that lead to and show love. He is the author, the example, and the finisher of such notion.

What did He say, but to deny yourself and follow me? Paul says, I beat my body into submission. For what sake, the love for and through the Gospel.

God bless.

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Definition of Terms

Since this question has used the Greek quotation of Matt. 5:27-28, let's look at the words being defined:

μοιχεύω(moicheuó) to commit adultery with, have unlawful intercourse with another's wife: Matthew 5:28 (Thayer's Lexicon)

ἐπιθυμέω(epithumeó) to set one's heart upon) to have a desire for, long for; absolutely, to desire (A. V. lust")(Thayer's)

What is apparent is that these 2 words do not mean the exactly the same thing; "moicheuó" is definitely a violation of the 7th Commandment(Thou shalt not commit adultery), whereas "epithumeó" is interpreted as "having a desire for", which Jesus uses in Luke 22:15,

καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς Ἐπιθυμίᾳ ἐπεθύμησα τοῦτο τὸ πάσχα φαγεῖν μεθ' ὑμῶν πρὸ τοῦ με παθεῖν

And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer:

The "ἐπεθύμησα" (I have desired) is in an of itself not a bad connotation; in the context of marriage Paul states,(1 Cor. 7:5)

Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. 6But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment

To have "desire" inside the context of marriage is 1 Cor. 7:33,

But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.

So we see that "ἐπιθυμέω" in and of itself does not denote an negative connotation; how then do we evaluate Matt. 5:27-28?

The 10 Commandment

The context of "coveting thy neighbor's wife" was contained in the 10th Commandment,(Ex. 20:17)

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's.

תַחְמֹ֖ד(tahmod)in bad sense of inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire, followed by accusative Exodus 20:17(BDB)

The precedent for "covetousness" is in the 10th Commandment, which, unless outwardly acted upon, is a "sin of the heart", therefore it is incumbent for men(and women) to 'police' their hearts, lest their "ungoverned selfish desire" carry them away into committing the 'overt' actions(fornication, theft, adultery, etc.) Furthermore, covetousness is equivocated with idolatry; in numerous instances Israel was admonished not to 'fornication' in the worship of false gods,(Ex, 34:15)

Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice;

When one allows "inordinate, ungoverned, selfish desire" to overtake themselves, the next step is "fornication" or "adultery", whichever the context is, as one makes an 'idol' out of what one desires, putting it ahead of God and His commandments.

It is in this context, one of "תַחְמֹ֖ד" that Jesus is basing His words on: to have "desire for"(attraction) is not in it's essence sinful(this is better than repulsion), rather, it is "coveting"-an inordinate unruly passion which seeks consummation which was already prohibited in the Law, and Jesus emphasizes this in Matt. 5:27-28.

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Can someone help me find a sound interpretation?

Matthew 5:27-28 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

In this part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is correcting the popularly held belief that if you followed the letter of the law, you have been successful in keeping the law. The verses regarding lust follow those of anger;

Matthew 5:21-22 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

In effect Jesus is taking two of the ten commandments as examples. He is showing them that the law was not so limited as to have only a narrow legal interpretation.

Paul shows us the purpose of the law;

Galatians 3:24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

Unfortunately many people like the Pharisees and the rich young ruler thought they had kept the law and thus had achieved their own righteousness the result of which was that many felt no need for a savior.

Jesus uses this opportunity to introduce many new concepts. The idea that we can be held accountable for the desire behind the sin even if the sin was never acted upon was an eye-opener. The ideas of "love your enemies" and "do not resist evil" were just as radical.

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There's actually another permutation of meaning required by your question, that you alluded to but perhaps you didn't notice directly--the specification of "adultery in one's heart" as contrasted from, say "fornication in one's heart".

One could fairly make the argument that if one is not married oneself, and the woman being "actively desired" is not married herself, it is impossible to commit "adultery in one's heart", because one could not commit adultery with her.

Considering this, the historical context, particularly the "covet" notation here, it seems clear that the basic origin of the sinfulness of the activity here is derived from notions of "theft" or "betrayal", not of "sex". Indeed, in regards to your point 2, the notion of God giving us a desire which is necessary for survival (how would any actually make the effort marry without sexual attraction ever having occurred?) and holding that as blameworthy on our part, is not philosophically sound. Much broader discussion on this point can be found on the question of interpretation of "original sin"--the soundest view of this appears to be that individual men and women aren't held responsible for "original sin" per se, they are responsible for the particular sins they individually do. Holding intrinsic attributes of our nature as sinful per se, is erroneous interpretation.

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